Why Billy Graham was a media pioneer as much as he was an evangelist

Following the passing on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 of renowned evangelist Billy Graham, 99, presumably a veritable cottage industry of books will arise overnight attempting to place his unique legacy in perspective. In assessing his lasting mark on the American consciousness, Graham was best-known for his direct, accessible presentation of the Gospel, which he preached to a collective audience of nearly 2l5 million people in live audiences in 185 countries and territories on six continents.

And yet, what is likely less-known was the astounding intuition of the late preacher in recognizing the impact that various forms of media had on people and culture, both as a method for communication and as a means to influence opinion and perceptions – or more viscerally, to impact hearts and minds.

For more than 33 years, over one-half of his public ministry, I had the privilege of serving as director of media and public relations and personal spokesperson and media representative for Billy Graham, beginning in the early 1980s at a time of increasing media interest in the evangelist. Back then, some might have argued that Graham’s best ministry work was behind him – in truth, I don’t think Graham himself believed he would minister publicly beyond his 60s – but history has proved that claim to be false.

After virtually every crusade during his final ten years of preaching, local media would report that it was Graham’s last. Perhaps this was because by the concluding decade of his public ministry, the progress of technology had begun to accelerate at such a blistering pace that each subsequent crusade reached more people on an increasingly broad, diverse scale – one capable of spanning not just continents, but the entire globe.

Graham always maintained a policy of engagement with the press – which greatly increased his influence and impact beyond crusade audiences.  He was an early adopter in his recognition and use of media and various mediums. His ministry was often the first to take advantage of each new technological era as it came along, becoming a media pioneer as much as an evangelist.

In a 1995 interview, Graham was asked, “If Jesus were alive today, would He have used the technologies available to modern religious leaders?” The evangelist responded, “[Jesus] used all the technology of his day to reach people and He certainly would have used technology today… He taught by walking and telling stories about things that He saw and illustrating the message He wanted to get across.”

It may be difficult for a modern audience to imagine “walking and talking” as technology, but when one considers that, after every miracle Jesus performed, he instructed the miracle’s beneficiary to share the newfound knowledge of Jesus with everyone he or she encountered, Graham’s statement makes more sense: Jesus understood the power inherent to the medium of story, and was essentially making his message – in modern parlance – “go viral.”

Three years later, Graham forecasted the Internet’s revolution on evangelism: “It’s going to be a tremendous world in the next ten to fifteen years,” he said. That same year, following a plenary address to the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Conference in 1998, the nearly 70-year-old evangelist then received a standing ovation from the industry’s leadership.

From the printed page to radio broadcasts, followed by television and motion pictures, extending all of that around the world via satellite and then Internet, Graham’s energetic appropriation of the media landscape – in which he always sought platforms, not publicity, for his message was frequently on the vanguard of how current culture and opinion influencers, both religious and secular, interact with their audiences.

A dominant figure on Gallup’s “Ten Most Admired Men” the last six decades, Graham appeared a record 60 times – more than any other person worldwide. He was included on the annual list every year but one in which the question was asked, since 1955. He also has appeared on the covers of “Time,” “Newsweek,” “Life,” “U.S. News & World Report,” “Parade,” and numerous other publications.

“There’s no question that Billy Graham, motivated as an evangelist, was in some ways a creative genius for the utilization of media,” said longtime crusade director Rick Marshall. “Billy Graham was a risk-taker, who was willing to go where no one else had gone, in being among the first to leverage new mediums for the presentation of his message.”

America Online (AOL) founder Steve Case observed of Graham, “He was trying to get the message relevant and reach people in ways that (were) relevant to them. And so when radio became important, he started buying radio stations. When motion pictures were important, he started creating movies that could carry that message to that audience. When television became important, he leveraged television. And of course, the Internet as well.”

According to Time magazine executive editor Michael Duffy, “Mr. Graham viewed media platforms beyond an opportunity or his responsibility to necessity, opening doors for even greater ministry… He constantly reached out to editors and anchors. He didn’t run from critics and he engaged in the national discourse without compromising his beliefs.”

In addition to wielding media technologies to extend the reach of his own message and ministry programming, Graham also recognized that by engaging with gatekeepers who report the news, he could more deeply influence culture as an authoritative media source, demonstrating how the Bible speaks to personal and societal problems. In this way, individuals who read newspapers and mainstream print and online publications or watch cable news, but might never otherwise listen to him, would be exposed to his positive message of God’s love and forgiveness available to all who receive Him in faith.

While he did not consider himself a luminary, Graham was also cognizant of America’s celebrity-driven culture, and understood the potential impact and influence of name recognition. With this in mind, he could put his biblical message into a cultural context, using language and illustrations he knew would best appeal to his audience.

Graham was never a so-called “televangelist,” because his ministry was in stadiums, not studios.  Following a turbulent period of scandal among other television preachers in the late 1980s, he remained unscathed.  He turned down more than 350 requests for interviews about that ministry genre, instead referring inquirers to a book he had written four years earlier entitled, “A Biblical Standard for Evangelists.”

To his great credit, Billy Graham possessed an unprecedented capacity and willingness to apologize for his mistakes, an ability Duke University professor Grant Wacker esteems was “symptomatic” of what Americans value in their public figures. According to the late Chuck Colson, “one of the great miracles of the 20th Century was that Billy Graham remained a humble man.”

The late David Frost, who interviewed Billy Graham numerous times over the course of a friendship spanning decades, wrote in the forward to his book, “Billy Graham in Conversation,” that no subsequent preacher has “presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ as clearly or as straightforwardly as Dr. Graham. He believed his message totally, offered it without apology, and stated unequivocally how urgent he thought it was for people to accept Christ – now.”

The world will likely not see another in our lifetime like Billy Graham, a man of conscience, compassion and peace, who served as God’s steadfast yet innovative Ambassador in a generation of rapid technological and cultural evolution.

Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based media/public relations agency that provides crossover media liaison emanating from or targeted to the Christian market. For more than 32 years, he served as director of media/public relations for evangelist Billy Graham - over one-half of his public ministry.  Follow him on Twitter @alrcand Facebook